GAO: Billions Wasted on Redundant Federal Programs
Policy + Politics

GAO: Billions Wasted on Redundant Federal Programs


A year after documenting widespread government waste and duplication of effort, the General Accountability Office concluded Tuesday that little progress has been made in addressing this costly problem.

In a new study issued on Tuesday, the GAO found that:

  • Eleven federal agencies continue to operate 94 separate initiatives to spur energy-efficient construction in the private sector.
  • Nine agencies or departments lead programs to safeguard food and agricultural systems from natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
  • Thirteen agencies spend a total of $30 million annually funding 15 separate financial literacy programs.

In all, the GAO found 32 cases in which different parts of the federal government are essentially doing the same job. These redundancies and inefficiencies are costing U.S. taxpayers “tens of billions of dollars annually,” according to GAO, an investigative unit of Congress.

By doing some serious surgery and governmental reorganization, Congress and the White House could reap big savings, according to the GAO.  “Cost savings related to reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, and fragmentation can be difficult to estimate in some cases because the portion of agency budgets devoted to certain programs or activities is often not clear,” the report explains.
Last year’s GAO study flagged 81 areas of government that were prime for streamlining. The Obama administration and Congress have fully addressed the duplications in four of those governmental areas, according to the GAO, and are in the process of implementing reforms in 60 other areas.  Redundant programs have dotted agency budgets for decades, but concern about this waste has grown in recent years as the budget deficit repeatedly has breached the $1 trillion level. 

With a critical election looming this year, the White House and congressional leaders not surprisingly blaming each other for the redundancy  and waste. “This report is more likely to feed into political rhetoric than spur an actual tamp down on government waste,” said Bill Gale, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The White House this morning issued a statement saying that the Obama administration has done much in the past year to respond to the GAO criticism.  “Nearly 80 percent of the issue areas for which GAO recommended action last year, and more than three-quarters of the recommendations for executive branch actions associated with those areas (76 percent) were addressed in some way,” Office of Management and Budget Controller Danny Werfel wrote in a blog post.  “Congress addressed less than 40 percent of the GAO recommendations.”
The White House also said the report highlights the urgent need for Congress to grant President Obama greater executive powers to consolidate  federal agencies and functions---an effort the President has undertaken with trade agencies.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sought to shift blame from lawmakers to the federal bureaucracy itself for the duplication of effort.  “I have always said that the enemy isn’t the Democrats, the enemy isn’t the Republicans—it’s the bureaucracy. A bureaucracy that inherently resists change and adaptation,” he said during a hearing today on the report.
However, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., disagreed with Issa, and singled out lawmakers as “the main offender” during the hearing.   “Today’s findings are a testament to failed congressional efforts of oversight and a reminder Congress continues to shirk its duty to address even blatant areas of waste and mismanagement of taxpayer funding,” Coburn said.
Some budget experts say the contents of this report could provide lawmakers some fiscal cover when they try to abide by the discretionary spending caps they put in place this summer as part of the debt ceiling deal, which capped 2012 spending at $1.043 trillion and 2013 spending at $1.047 trillion. “I look to this report not as saving additional money in the future, but giving policymakers good ideas about sensible places they can look to cut spending to nose themselves under the pretty-tight spending caps they’re already imposed on themselves,” said Josh Gordon, policy director for The Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group. “And they’re going to need the money…there’s only so much you can cut when the government has these basic functions to do.”

Some of the other more glaring examples of redundancy and waste cited by the GAO include the estimated $1.2 billion the Departments of Defense and Energy collectively spent on internet capabilities that they already had last year, and an unclear amount spent by several agencies to assess the security of their buildings when those agencies already pay the Department of Homeland Security nearly $236 million to do so.